Franklin H. Durrah, John William De Forest, and the Varieties of Military Experience
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Franklin H. Durrah, John William De Forest, and the Varieties of Military Experience

The actual soldier of 1862–65, North and South, with all his ways, his incredible dauntlessness, habits, practices, tastes, language, his fierce friendship, his appetite, rankness, his superb strength and animality, lawless gait, and a hundred unnamed lights and shades of camp, I say, will never be written—perhaps must not and should not be.

Walt Whitman, Specimen Days in America (1882)

Try our best, we never shall realize completely that the dead are dead, or that the living are to die.

Union Captain John William De Forest, in a letter to his wife (August 17, 1863)

In late July 1865, ‘Harper’s Weekly’ announced an open call for essay submissions from veterans of the recent war. The soldiers’ first-hand accounts of wartime experience were to be the materials for “Left-Handed Penmanship,” a writing competition thought up by William Oland Bourne. Himself a New Yorker of moderate literary note, Bourne began publishing a short monthly newspaper in the last years of the war while serving as chaplain of Central Park Hospital.1 “Left-Handed Penmanship” was advertised in that paper, The Soldier’s Friend, as well as in Harper’s, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and several regional newspapers in the Northeast and Midwest.2 And though he was himself no soldier, Bourne was “always devising some fresh pleasure or benefit for the soldiers,” and sought to award five hundred dollars to “the best four specimens of penmanship by ‘left-armed soldiers of the Union.’” The phrasing was vague and crude, but then so [End Page 41] was the condition of the audience Harper’s was seeking—those walking wounded who had lost their right hand to combat and were now forced to write with their left.

Any man who has lost his right arm in the service may compete. He may write an original or selected article upon a patriotic theme, and he must write not less than two nor more than seven pages upon fine letter paper of ordinary size, leaving an inch margin at the sides, top and bottom of the paper. The writer must also give his name in full; his regiment, company, and rank; the list of battles in which he was engaged; the place where he lost his arm, and his post-office address.

(“Left-Handed Penmanship”)

Little more than three months after Appomattox and the end of the war, “Left-Handed Penmanship” was one of the first public spaces that made literate and gave validation to the stories Civil War soldiers had to tell. Not just soldiers, but specifically mutilated soldiers, were directed to apply. And while this restriction might in part stem from a morbid curiosity about amputees and how they functioned with their disabilities, it seems more likely that for Bourne, Harper’s, and the general passers-by on the street, the visible effects of war and sacrifice on the bodies of soldiers demanded some form of immediate public expression.3 Wounded soldiers were patently there for all to see.4 They were the real and undeniable reminders of how human experience was in fact irreversible—that men are born with two arms, and that some thing, some event, had happened during the war that took away those arms forever. Absent limbs were unsettling not merely because they looked different, but moreover because there was an experiential finality inherent in their loss with which the culture was uncomfortable.5 Arms, legs, and lives could never be replaced, and yet Americans at the war’s end were not entirely willing to concede the fact. Indeed, “Left-Handed Penmanship” can be seen as symptomatic of a larger cultural tendency immediately following the war that symbolically wanted to undo the trauma of the conflict through a mnemonic sleight-of-hand. If the almost infinitely various experiences of individual soldiers could be quickly condensed and normalized into the collective memory of an uninjured nationalism—if a right arm actually could be replaced by a left arm as the contest suggested—then it was the larger, healthier narrative [End Page 42] of marching forward together that mattered, not...


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